President Obama, who has said he wants to keep the Patriot Act more or less intact, is discovering one of the enduring truths about the presidency: Things look different once you're in it.
The administration's announcement last week set off alarms on both sides of the aisle. Democrats want the law rewritten while Republicans say it has kept the country safe since it was enacted after the 9/1 1 terror attacks. They want it kept as is. There is room for compromise here -- which, as it happens, is Obama's position.
The White House wants to retain its ability to track suspects and obtain records, but also says it is willing to negotiate stronger privacy protections for Americans, which is the most urgent matter regarding this law. Negotiators will have to keep some hard facts prominently in mind.
First is that a handful of terrorists really did kill 3,000 people eight years ago. As the country has returned to a more normal footing, it has become easy to forget the potential for terrible pain. The nation got a timely reminder of that this month with the arrest of a Colorado man charged with seeking to manufacture weapons of mass destruction -- possibly to detonate on New York City commuter trains.
Second is that, even under stress, Americans must remain true to their ideals. We've not been perfect about that by any stretch -- Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; FDR imprisoned Japanese-Americans -- but upon reflection, we have always recommitted. That's what should happen now. Except in extreme circumstances, government agents should need a warrant before tapping phones. Americans should be able to know that Uncle Sam isn't on an exploratory trip through their library borrowing habits.
Those were mistakes of the Bush years, made by Congress and an administration under inconceivable pressure to protect Americans, but also by individuals without a decent respect for the defining concepts of American democracy. To people like former Vice President Dick Cheney, it was his way or annihilation. There was no room for such niceties as privacy or due process. By his thinking, we had to give up who we are in order to protect who we are.
Obama seems willing to acknowledge that there is a better way, even as the country confronts the long-term problem of terrorism. His problem will be with extreme liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans -- tunnel-visioned ideologues who never met a compromise they liked.
That will be the test, though. The country plainly needs to protect itself from enemies who can blend into the background while plotting to kill thousands.
But at the same time, it also must protect the values for which hundreds of thousands already have given their lives.